If you think the tempers of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes' two drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez became a little frayed as a result of rivalry spilling out of control during the recent Bahrain Grand Prix, then spare a thought for those on the pitwall who have to strain every sinew to keep such pressure-cooker rivalry under control.
Refereeing hugely ambitious and handsomely paid athletes' squabbles calls for considerable patience and understanding. The task is crucial, its reward to draw the best out of two divas (sorry, drivers) in situations of intense competition, coaxing them both to deliver 100 per cent on their promise without showing undue partiality or favouritism. By any standards it can be a tricky balancing act, and the balancer-in-chief must always be the team principal.
"In McLaren’s 50-year racing history there have only been four team principals: Bruce McLaren, of course, who was owner and driver and team principal; Teddy Mayer; Ron Dennis; & Martin Whitmarsh."
It seems amazing, but in McLaren’s 50-year racing history there have only been four team principals: Bruce McLaren, of course, who was owner and driver and team principal; Teddy Mayer; Ron Dennis; and Martin Whitmarsh. All four men brought specific, and very different, management skills to the party.
Bruce was killed in 1970, and his tragically brief tenure saw him channel and shape the team’s early image, a mix of technical expertise and cutting-edge experimentation for the future.
At the same time, while dealing with the operation of the team on a race-by-race basis, he also had to keep the conservative UK motor racing grandees sweet and sympathetic in the face of his then deputy Teddy’s abrupt and outspoken operational style.
Bruce knew full-well that keeping the tyre manufacturers and fuel suppliers happy was an absolutely essential priority. And if that meant keeping Teddy - a sharp-minded and direct-talking Pennsylvania lawyer as well as one of the original McLaren investors - on a short leash to prevent him taking a bite out of estabishment shins, then so be it.
Theirs was a great double act, back in then late 1960s, with Teddy bellowing down the telephone at suppliers who may have come close to missing a delivery deadline, then Bruce coming on the line to pour oil on troubled waters. The Formula 1 establishment was left slightly confused, wondering why that nice Mr McLaren was employing such an aggressive co-director. But both Bruce and Teddy knew exactly what they were doing, and the ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine worked very well for both of them. But, more important, it worked very well for the McLaren team.
When Ron took over from Teddy in 1980, it was no surprise that his famously impeccable attention to detail immediately spilled over into the pit lane. Previously, McLaren Formula 1 cars had been rather rugged if usually effective creations, but from here on in they would be as sleek in their operation as they were in their aesthetic design. And Ron had a very hands-on style - always keen to perfect, or in his distinctive lexicon that soon became known as 'Ron-speak', "optimise" his cars' blue-chip look and feel.
When Martin Brundle drove the race of his life to bring his McLaren home a strong second behind Michael Schumacher’s Benetton in the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix, Ron said, “Just remember, Martin, second is first of the losers.” Martin bit his tongue, for when his father had died in the run-up to that year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, Ron could not have been more helpful. Similarly, when David Coulthard survived a private jet crash prior to the 1999 Spanish Grand Prix, Ron behaved in exactly the same way, keeping DC away from all the media attention. “I'll do anything for anyone,” Ron once said, “provided that it's fair and reflects a sense of balance.”
"When Ron took over from Teddy in 1980, it was no surprise that his famously impeccable attention to detail immediately spilled over into the pit lane."
Ron’s tenure as McLaren team principal was eventually ended by the man himself in early 2009, a few months after his protégé, young Lewis Hamilton, had won the 2008 World Championship for him in dramatic fashion, on the last lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix, Ron directing operations from the pitwall with his trademark mixture of unease & sang froid.
The man Ron chose to replace himself as team principal was Martin, who holds the position still, and who had left British Aerospace in 1988 to join McLaren as operations director. Martin soon saw that one of his first tasks would have to be to coax Ron to be less hands-on - and his first 'victory' in that regard was in successfully persuading Ron to abandon the role of ‘pitstop lollipop man’ (ie, the wielder of the circular sign that indicated to a driver that he should accelerate back down the pitlane and onto the track, knowing that his car’s wheels were firmly secured and no other car was hurtling down the pitlane as he did so [there were no pitlane speed limits in those days, remember]).
Now, 20 years later, McLaren Group (as it's called) is a much bigger and more complex corporate edifice than it was when Martin first persuaded Ron to delegate lollipop-wielding duties to lesser employees. In those days it was a Formula 1 team, nothing else. Now it's a Formula 1 team, of course it is, but it's also a sports car manufacturing car company, an applied technologies company, an electronics company, a marketing company, a video animation company, and even a catering company.
And, now, as chairman Ron sits in his palatial office at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking (Surrey), non-executive chairman these days yet still master of all he surveys, it's difficult to square the svelte 65-year-old multi-millionaire captain of industry with the hard-working teenaged mechanical engineer who first arrived on the Formula 1 scene in Mexico in 1966, apprenticed to Cooper; but truth is often stranger than fiction, and it is indeed one and the same man.
And although these days he's more likely to be seen in Whitehall or Threadneedle Street than at Spa or Monza, he's still a racer, through and through. Always was, always will be. And that racer's influence continues to be felt all the way through the organisation, from top to bottom, as a benign yet hectoring influence on McLaren and all who sail in her.